Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Ron Wakabayashi Interview
Narrator: Ron Wakabayashi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 5, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-460-16

<Begin Segment 16>

TI: So I was going to ask the question, so at what point did you think, oh, this is going to actually happen? Or I mean, really thinking that it was going to happen?

RW: I don't think you're ever sure. But when someone like Inouye says that, you go, like early on, my view of it was I got to do due diligence on this. Remember I said that I don't want my mom not to be able to go to J-Town? Because it's not like whether you succeed, it's more like if you fuck up. I mean, like you went you gave it...

TI: Everything, and you threw yourself on the sword.

RW: Yeah. Like I was working crazy hours to do three jobs. So from own standpoint, that's not anything people can see from the outside, because I knew myself, right, to do that, I gave it everything I could, and to kind of help even block for people, and even control my own... because like anyone else, you're kind of like, wow, I'd like more recognition, or get credit for this. There were things that I think we did that were important, but it's not like it made the difference, the difference. Like we did a thing of saying, once we saw Mary Tsukamoto, we need elementary school teachers. Steve was doing that film on the hibakusha and we gave him space downstairs.

TI: Steve... the Academy Award-winning...

RW: Yeah. And I was interested, the three people featured are all women hibakusha, and he says, "Because men don't get any sympathy." And I took that lesson. And when I saw, first time I saw Mary Tsukamoto... Mary Tsukamoto is apple pie. She's an elementary school teacher, she has these little glasses, rosy cheeks, Betty Boop, and her first grade presentation is, "Hi, boys and girls." Like this is your military necessity. And Carole raised it, it's like, we need to recruit elementary school teachers, and we did.

TI: Interesting.

RW: And I think that was an important strategy to overcome -- and I really think people like Mary were instrumental. Like if we had our 442 story, it'd be great, but Mary, they locked her up. Because that woman, she's arthritic to the point where she can't dress herself, and she's going out doing this. I think it's epic, that's about as important, or as much sacrifice as Battle of the Bulge.

TI: From your perspective, what are some of the people that you think have, not enough acknowledgement has been paid to them in terms of redress? We're talking about people that, most of the people that I'm pretty familiar with, were there some people behind the scenes that you think, from your perspective, were important to the whole movement?

RW: I think there's a lot... I mean, if you go early, I think Michi Weglyn gets overlooked. I don't know how the hell she kind of launched onto the thing in the first place, I never got that story.

TI: So her book, Years of Infamy...

RW: Yeah. I mean, how did you imagine that... you know, she comes out of the same group as Aiko, right? And I remember Warren and I went out and met with them. And I developed a kind of writing relationship with Michi. I really didn't know her very well, but we exchanged. And she wrote me a really nice note about, "I liked your poem in Gidra." Who compliments a poem in Gidra? But I don't know all the story to that, but I just, it just had to be in that early period. Aiko in a different way, like I know what she did there, but she was an outlier even within that group. She was too pretty to be, you get a "lefter than thou" thing that she overcame, and she ends up being like a major heroine, but in the beginning...

TI: What people...

RW: She was not as radical or... I think they underestimated -- you know, I don't think you have to be hardcore throwing hand grenades to be effective. Like she did it by just plugging away, going to the archives every day, like, "Oh, look what I found?" And it's not like I agreed with her all the time. I didn't agree with Hohri. And Hohri was obnoxious, but I think...

TI: Do you think his effort and NCJAR was valuable?

RW: No, I think it's because there is a question of, "Why don't we go directly?"

TI: Why not have a legal case and ask for damages?

RW: Yeah. I think there needs to be a lot of exploration, like the first Lowry Bill, that million dollar calculation? That makes sense. But then through the practical, this was difficult. But I think there's a lot of processing, and in many cases, there's no right answer until there is an answer. And in hindsight --

TI: Well, that's why your position was so interesting to me, because, the term "herding cats," it was even more than that, I mean, it wasn't passive, this was so important to so many people, and when I talk to people, and they thought their way was the only way. Not just like this common interest thing, no, this is the only way, and you had to navigate all that.

RW: Yeah, and I think that's kind of normal that it happens that way. I mean, the work I do now is with protests largely, right? And you see that kind of conflict within groups. That just seems to be just human. Like if you go inside any organization when they're doing a campaign, there's a lot of ego, there's a lot of testosterone, there's a lot of difference in experiences, there's differences in values and experience, that's all quite natural. The process of kind of getting to, shaking out to reaching a conclusion, like after we had redress, it's like everyone kind of had the right idea in the first place, which really wasn't true. But it's okay.

TI: Well, so for your work now, going through that whole process must have been so valuable. Not to just see it, but actually be part of it, and just knowing how it felt to be in those moments.

RW: And it's helpful to my work. I mean, even here, like after 9/11, I remember meeting with Muslim groups, right? And I said, I went through the redress thing, I was the JACL national director through that. And my belief is that the camps, that can't happen again. But years later, I go back to them saying, "You know what? I retract that." That's what I thought then, now, given what's taken place, I think we do have to be concerned.

TI: That must be scary for them because you're DOJ, right? For you to say something like that?

RW: Yeah, but I think that by now they'd know me personally, right? And it's even stuff like the story I said about the Iman and his kids, I recognized it, or the internal fights between... because the Muslims are going through, "We need to show our loyalty." And then another school is like, "We need to stand up for our rights." And they're both right, but testosterone makes them both wrong. And in some ways, because I'm an outsider and not in one camp or the other, and can share it from a different community experience, it's easier for me to say, "You're both right and you're both wrong." But in our case, the bad part is it's remained a scar that's divided people. Because if I'd looked back at that stuff that the resisters wrote, that's among the most honorable stuff that was written during camp.

TI: So you're talking about the Fair Play Committee out of Heart Mountain?

RW: Yeah. All that stuff is like thoughtful, articulate. On the other hand, in my office, I have Saburo Kido's typewriter, he gave it to me. Like I value that as well, like he wrote all the briefs on this thing. I wanted the museum to have it eventually, right? It's a weird piece. But Masaoka, the same, there are parts of Mike, like, "You son of a bitch."

TI: Oh, some of the things that he was proposing during the war, World War II?

RW: Yeah. But I can understand some people arriving at that. But I don't like it.

TI: I mean, was there something in particular that really stands out? Something Mike did during World War II?

RW: I think it's more generic. Like when you look at... because he's theatrical, like the "suicide battalion," that's theater. He knows downright that's not going to be accepted, but he plays theater. But I don't know that that there's things you play with that way. It's not like the folks that were in D.C., Mike included, were not helpful to give us insights into what we have to do on that end. I mean, D.C., even now, that's not real world, I mean, it's sort of like what happens to walk through. Folks talk about Ray Murakami, right? And personally...

TI: So he's the dentist...

RW: He's Rodino's dentist. It's like there were things you could say to someone when they're sitting in their chair. There was a remarkable group of people who have a life experience there that gave them a window into D.C. that most of us didn't have. Like there were windows that I got just being the JACL director going through there periodically. And then there's other windows even now, as being a kind of a senior DOJ staff person, and having friends who were in the White House, that's just such bullshit. And even like during Obama, right, there were people that have great fondness and respect for it, that you know that's bullshit. But you kind of understand, okay, I understand you had to put up with it, but I'm sure glad I didn't have to make that call, because that would hurt.

TI: That's one of the, I guess, difficulties of being an insider sometimes, having to do things that...

RW: Yeah, you give up something to be inside. You get something, too, I mean, there were things that you could push and you could accomplish by being inside, but there's other things that you give up.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.